The country’s meteoric rise to regional powerhouse has come at the cost of civil freedoms.
As Rwandan President Paul Kagame ends his one-year term as chair of the African Union, his focus may return to domestic matters.
– Rwanda’s economic prosperity and model of governance has piqued the interest of other African nations, notably Zimbabwe
– Rwanda’s long-standing president has been integral to the country’s economic rehabilitation, which has paralleled with civil and political suppression
– Even as Kagame was awarded Forbes Magazine’s 2018 “African of the Year”, the origins, sustainability, and applicability of Rwanda’s political model have increasingly become the subject of interest for outside observers
FROM RUINS TO REGIMENT
Throughout 1994, Rwanda endured a brutal genocide that saw the murder of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, the majority ethnic Tutsis. This tectonic eruption along ethnic fault lines crippled the small nation economically and socially. Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, led a rebel force of some 10,000–14,000 Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers that eventually retook the capital Kigali in early July, effectively ending the slaughter. The National Assembly elected Kagame as president of the transitional government in 2000, and he was democratically elected as president in 2003. Rwanda has since enjoyed average GDP growth of over 7%, a substantial decrease in unemployment, and a female representation rate in parliament that tops many Western nations. The marketisation of the economy has also been so successful that nearby neighbours, including Zimbabwe and Kenya, have expressed admiration for Kagame’s socio-economic model.
Kagame is largely credited with Rwanda’s economic rise. The president has attributed the success to Singapore’s model of governance under the late Lee Kuan Yew; indeed, Rwanda is proclaimed the “Singapore of Africa”. The notable cleanliness in Kigali, strong police presence throughout the country, and little tolerance for dissent are traits that the two administrations share. The leadership styles of Kagame and Yew share other fundamental qualities, namely the curtailment of government corruption and ensuring that Rwanda’s economic development does not come at the expense of widening inequality.
Academics have classified Rwanda’s leadership style as a system of “developmental patrimonialism”. The financial capital substantiating the rule of the RPF is centralised and deployed through bodies such as party-owned enterprises, and is then allocated in a manner that is objectively developmental. Such a system compromises a healthy private sector and democratic values for the sake of development. Crystal Ventures Limited (CVL), with an estimated $500m in assets as of 2017, is the primary enterprise through which the RPF invests and earns capital that is then reinvested into the Rwandan economy. CVL’s investment portfolio is extensive, from milk processing to real estate, to the allocation of funds to the RPF’s political campaigns. This system has some clear advantages, including directing capital towards long-term projects where local or foreign investors may be hesitant to invest. Nevertheless, funding allocations in this manner may enable the party to loot the economy if, for instance, Kagame or the RPF lose power.
KAGAME UNLIKELY TO BE GOING ANYWHERE
Similar to Yew’s model of Singapore, Kagame’s rule has come at a considerable cost for Rwanda’s civil and political freedoms. Repression of dissidents is rarely reported domestically but common knowledge throughout the world. The mysterious death of critic and former spy chief Patrick Karegeya in a South African hotel room in 2004 is emblematic of Kagame’s propensity for suppression. Kagame later dismissed concerns, saying “shouldn’t we have done it?”. Freedom of association and expression within Rwanda are also notably absent, as political critics face swift imprisonment.
Rwanda’s press has effectively been muzzled, with the assassination, imprisonment, exile, and torture of over a dozen journalists being reported since Kagame’s ascent to power. However, the lack of any significant opposition is perhaps the most fundamental trade-off in Kagame’s Rwanda. Freedom House deems Rwanda electorally “not free”. Reports of arbitrary arrest, beatings, and enforced disappearances of opposition groups members marred the 2017 presidential election, where Kagame won almost 99% of the vote.
There are a number of parameters that suggest Kagame will remain in office for the foreseeable future. A 2015 constitutional amendment vote removed the two seven-year term limits previously constraining the presidential office. Despite concern from the US and EU, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending term limits, theoretically allowing Kagame to retain his position until 2034.
Over time, Kagame has also been entrenched as the incontrovertible “boss” in the Rwandan political landscape. This entrenchment involved considerable PR work, such as being seen ‘getting his hands dirty’ by cleaning the streets of Kigali himself to set an example to residents. Structurally, the use of party-owned enterprises, particularly CVL, places the RPF centre stage in Rwanda’s financial successes, which helps to maintain a positive public image. This image would be damaged if the RPF was found to engage in corrupt or irresponsible investment practices. However, the RPF has not undermined Rwandan development, instead reinvesting profits back into the Rwandan economy to sustain their broad voter support.
FISCAL GROWTH, CIVIL LIMITATIONS
Assuming that the political landscape remains stable, Rwanda’s economic success will continue. The economy is projected to grow by 7.8% in 2019 and 8.0% in 2020, and fiscal deficit will drop to 3.6% of GDP by 2020. The RPF’s strong history of developmental reforms and current investments also bode well for the Rwandan economy. For example, Kagame’s “Made in Rwanda” policy launched in 2015 to boost economic growth and establish Rwandan products in the global marketplace has led to a near doubling of exports in a few short years.
Despite this rapid growth, there is little indication that the treatment of Kagame’s critics will improve. As long as there is no real opposition party, it is likely that civil liberties will continue to diminish. Although there have been some challengers to Kagame and the RPF, including the detained opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, these detractors are scarce and are unlikely to proliferate in the current political status quo.
AN EXPORTABLE MODEL?
Whether Kagame’s model of leadership is exportable remains debatable. Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has repeatedly called for Harare to emulate Rwanda’s model of development. For largely structural reasons, is it unlikely that Zimbabwe can replicate Kagame’s developmental patrimonialism. Control, both within the ruling party and over the opposition parties, is critical to Kagame’s model of leadership.
Internal control measures safeguard against corruption within the ruling party and ensure that capital is reinvested into the RPF’s developmental portfolio, while external control measures are critical in ensuring that the ruling party does not lose elections and maintains a dominant political voice. In Zimbabwe, the opposition is simply too strong to allow the ruling party a hegemony on spending and decision making as it does in Rwanda. Additionally, developmental patrimonialism requires generated funds to be reinvested into the economy. Zimbabwe ranks 160 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s corruption rankings; its systemic corruption would likely obstruct Kagame-style leadership. Ironically for Mnangagwa, it is opposition to his government, which bolsters fundamental democratic values, which would prevent him from importing a Rwandan style of governance.